Cars are a very important and yet very personal purchase decision, more so than anything besides for maybe a luxury vehicle (boat, plane, etc.) or a house. And if you’re curious about hybrid vehicles, it’s even more difficult because a test drive just doesn’t cut it. To get a real feel for the car, you need to have at least a few days of heavy driving, or at least a week, and that just isn’t an option for buyers.

Thankfully, you’ve got us, your friendly product reviewers and critics at Gadget Review, to look into everything from $5 earbuds to $30,000 vehicles. Back in May we looked at the Kia Rio and said it was a great car, and before that the Buick LaCrosse which we rated 4.5/5 stars. As a current hybrid owner, I took a look at Kia’s Optima Hybrid, a new model with a unique take on hybrid design that does a lot right for the engine type. While companies like GM are focusing on low-emission standard engines, companies like Toyota and Kia are really pushing for hybrids and improving them significantly. The Optima Hybrid is an incredible push forward for hybrids.

Unlike most hybrids, the Optima has three different driving modes. Most hybrids have two that are felt when driving: electric-only and gas/electric, which is typically very light on the electric engine and heavy on the gas. The Optima Hybrid has three: electric-only, electric/gas, and gas-only. The middle path is extremely noticeable, not just because the 6.5″ GPS display shows the electric engine powering the wheels simultaneously with the gas engine, but because you can feel it while driving. The car is noticeably quieter, the drive is much smoother, and you definitely save on gas.

This tri-engine state is a weird one for hybrid owners because it doesn’t feel right at first. It takes 3-4 days of driving to get used to, and requires a soft foot and an understanding of proper timing on the gas. In fact, if you’re considering buying the car I recommend taking several test drives, and asking if they have any models with over 1000 miles on it to take out. That way it’s a little more broken in, and a little more fluid switching between the different engine states. The first few days of driving are confusing, to say the least. I was never sure when the car would switch from one state to the next unless I floored it. And on my street, getting out requires a serious push on the gas.

That’s the first real problem with the Optima Hybrid, the switch between the different states, especially when the car is at rest. It takes a second to jump straight to gas, which causes serious hesitation when driving. I thought I was going to get in an accident at least twice early on. It wasn’t until I’d finally adapted to the car, and figured out how far the pedals needed to be pushed, that the drive became both reasonable for any car, and fun.

For anyone looking to upgrade from a standard gas motor, be aware that any hybrid will take getting used to, but the Optima requires extra care. It’s especially going to be hard if you live in an area with plenty of hills like I do, where steep inclines are just a normal part of driving. It took me, a steady hybrid driver, 2-3 days to adjust to.

The Toys (Gadgets)

The Optima Hybrid 2012 comes with all of the bells and whistles of a brand new car, and I made sure to take a close look at them for performance and ease of use. The first thing any smartphone owner will note is the phone pocket, a small panel that’s essentially an indent on the bottom of the dash just for keeping a phone of any size. It’s specially textured to make sure the device doesn’t flop around when driving, even over bumps, and is easy to reach for either the driver or passenger.

Nearly all of the electronic toys built into the Optima revolve around the 6.5″ display panel, a bright LCD panel that shows the GPS, radio, and rear-view camera. This touch sensitive display is clear and effective, and when synchronized with a smartphone via Bluetooth or, if it’s an iPhone, by USB, then it can control all of the media playback functions. iPhone owners will either really appreciate the Optima’s system or feel jealous of Android users, depending on what sort of driver you are. If you control your media only through the phone, then you won’t like connecting manually (via the included iPhone cable, which charges and docks the phone to the car). But if you use the standard iPod app for music and nothing else, then it won’t make any difference to you.

The reason for the difference? When docked, the iPhone only plays music from the iPod app. Worse yet, media playback functions are completely locked to only the dash screen, not the iPhone/iPod itself. But it’s an easy fix: just use Bluetooth. Connecting any phone via Bluetooth is more convenient, though not necessarily easier. After connecting one phone, it was surprisingly hard to connect a second, or even disconnecting the first. The software seems to lock out users from doing so at random times, both while driving and when stopped. Only after “rebooting” the car (turning it on and of) several times could I make any changes in the connected phones.

Once I had a phone set, the functionality was perfect. Media playback is excellent, especially for streaming services like Pandora because songs can be paused or skipped without ever touching the phone with the dash screen. No need for messy cables, though the option is there for when a friend wants to play a song on their phone just in case. The best part is, if you need to charge the phone, there isn’t that overwhelming static from a physical connection (which, I might add, any car with Bluetooth connectivity for media will have).

An especially cool feature in the Optima is the heated and cooled seats. These leather seats not only provide warmth it on those bitter mornings or a breeze on unbearable afternoons, they also don’t heat up under a brutal sun. That’s because of the way the seats are heated and cooled, through tiny vents where hot or cold air funnels through those vents and onto you. It may feel strange – especially cooling, which almost feels like water being poured on your back – but it’s seductively comforting.

Drive

Of course, the most important part of the car is how it drivres, and the Optima Hybrid, after broken in, is really fun. The hybrid is surprisingly sporty, both in look and feel. It’s heavy, so don’t expect to pull off any amazing stunts, but head down a freeway and you’ll notice that on flat road the engine does almost no work. It’s completely quiet. If you don’t like that, simple enough: floor it and hear the 2.4L, 4-cylinder 206HP engine purr. And with an estimated (and perhaps slightly worse than actual) EPA of 35/40, even if you’re going 80MPH, you aren’t burning a ton of gas while you’re there.

And that’s really one of the big sticking points for me as I drove the Optima Hybrid. It’s sporty in look and design (albeit the weight doesn’t match the power of the car), but it’s also quieter than most luxury cars. That’s thanks mostly to the 40HP engine, which as mentioned before uses a tri-state system. But the real reason it’s so quiet is because unless you floor it, the electric engine is always pushing its 40, so the gas engine almost never needs to stress so hard and, as a direct consequence, make so much damn noise.

Kia has also done an amazing job with making every part of the car feel silky smooth so that the ride isn’t only quiet, but it feels quiet. The shocks aren’t too stiff, so run over some light bumps and the car takes most of the hit without the driver feeling the burden. The insulation is top-notch, and the stereo system is excellent.

A few small tidbits: trunk space is decent, but not great. If your main concern is fuel economy, I’m still not sold on hybrids, though mostly because of the batteries; this is a personal problem though. My hybrid has broken down twice from nothing. Then again, it isn’t a Kia, it’s a Nissan. The back seats have a lot of space, as do the driver and passenger seats. The wheel isn’t very sporty and has a wide turn radius, but is made more like a luxury car. The front grill looks great, as you can see in any of the pictures above.

Conclusion

I’m impressed with Kia’s Optima Hybrid. It’s got an electric engine that’s no laughing matter and a gas engine that’ll get it moving, and fast, to boot. The triple-threat duo engine works surprisingly well for both a comfortable and efficient ride. It takes a few days of driving to get used to, and in that time driving the Optima Hybrid can be dangerous, so I recommend not driving it around hills or anywhere that the car has to switch back and forth between the different engine states until you are used to it.

From the outside it looks impressive, and from the inside the Optima Hybrid is roomy, spacious, and filled with all the buttons you could ever dream of. Overall a very good car that you’ll enjoy if you’re looking for good fuel economy, sporty and/or luxury driving, a quiet ride, and some of the latest high-tech toys without spending over $60K.

Editor’s Rating:

Rating: ★★★★☆

Great

Bottom Line: After a shaky start, the Optima Hybrid turns out to be a smart, fuel efficient and fun car.

Pros:

  • Smart three-system engine, with gas, gas-electric, and electric states
  • Great for fuel economy with an EPA of 35/40, but I found it to be more around 40 average
  • Luxurious/sporty drive. The wheel isn’t tight, but the drive generally is, while the shocks are soft and the engine very, very quiet…unless you don’t need it to be
  • All the toys you want on the inside, especially to match smartphone users

Cons:

  • Starting out can be dangerous; getting used to hybrids is already time consuming and strange, this setup will take even more time and patience, and in hilly areas could be dangerous
  • Some of the electronic controls don’t activate consistently, specifically for phone use or media playback
  • Mediocre trunk space

The Kia Optima Hybrid has an MSRP of $25,700. As tested, $32,500.



James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.